An Interview with Brad Strickland
by James M. Palmer
(originally published in Strange Horizons)
Brad Strickland has been a professional writer since his first sale to Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine in 1966. His first SF novel, To Stand Beneath the Sun, was published in 1985. Since then he has written or co-written fifty novels, including five Star Trek young-adult works written with his wife Barbara and several Are You Afraid of the Dark?, The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo, and Wishbone adventures done alone, in collaboration with Barbara, and in collaboration with fellow Georgia writer Thomas E. Fuller (now deceased-JMP). In 1992, Brad began a collaboration with the late John Bellairs, finishing The Ghost in the Mirror and The Vengeance of the Witchfinder from uncompleted manuscripts and then going on to continue the YA gothic mystery series begun by Bellairs. Currently he is collaborating with Fuller on Pirate Hunter, a YA adventure series they created. It will be published by Simon and Schuster beginning this fall.
In the daytime, Brad is Associate Professor of English at Gainesville College in Oakwood, Georgia, where he teaches American and British Lit, English Composition, and the occasional SF and Fantasy writing class.
This interview was conducted via e-mail.
James Palmer: What prompted you to become a writer?
Brad Strickland: I come from a family of storytellers. As a child, I listened to my grandparents, parents, aunts, and uncles tell all sorts of stories around the fireplace of my grandfather's farm at night. And I always loved to read, so storytelling came as a natural step for me. Despite being a teacher who stands in front of classes all day and an occasional actor, I'm actually pretty shy about talking to groups, so writing the stories rather than reciting them also seemed a natural step.
JP: Who are your biggest influences as a writer?
I have a good many. For the characters, I love the works of Charles Dickens--flamboyant, memorable people who stick in your mind long after you forget the details of the plots. Ray Bradbury's wistful, gentle, but surprisingly muscular and emotional style was an eye-opener for me as I was beginning to write. And just lately, the Napoleonic-era historical novels of Patrick O'Brian have been a composition course on how to re-create the feel and style of a bygone era.
JP: How did you get started writing young adult novels?
It began when The Byron Preiss publishing company put together a series of books for younger readers, based on fantasy characters or creatures. I did Dragon's Plunder, a comic fantasy involving some inept pirates and a studious dragon. Then a little later, the fantasist John Bellairs died suddenly of a heart attack. John is well-known as the writer of a cult favorite, The Face In The Frost, but he had also done more than a dozen YA gothic thrillers. He had left two books partially finished, and his son, Frank, wanted to have them completed (Frank was not himself a writer). He knew some of my work and suggested me to Richard Curtis, who was Johnís agent as well as mine. Richard asked if I would complete The Ghost In The Mirror.
I wasnít sure I could do it. After four or five long phone conversations with Toby Sherry, Johnís wonderful editor at Dial Books for Young Readers, and after meeting the publisher face to face, I got up the nerve to finish that book (it needed a better climax and resolution and some earlier chapters to "plant" one or two plot developments). I also completed The Vengeance Of The Witch-Finder. Those did well, leading me to go on to write two more books from the briefest of descriptions left by John ("Johnny and Fergie fight a voodoo priest whose magic threatens to kill Johnny's family") and then to extend the series with original novels written in the style of John. Those did well enough that, somewhat to my surprise, other YA publishers began to offer me projects.
JP: Was it hard to follow in his footsteps?
BS: It still is. I get mail from fans who berate me bitterly for this or that in the books. However, I also get much more mail from fans who like my books, so it more than balances out. I'm always keenly aware that I have a responsibility to do the best I can to live up to John's books, though I'm also aware that I am not John Bellairs and will never be. The best I can do is to keep the characters true to their backgrounds and to write the stories that seem to me to show off their personalities best.
JP: How are YA novels and adult novels different?
BS: YA novels are a bit shorter and more economical. Of course, there aren't graphic scenes of violence or erotica in YA fiction, but then I didn't have a plethora of these in my other fiction, either, so I hardly noticed the difference. I don't attempt to simplify the style or anything as I write for a younger audience; it's mainly a matter of thinking back to when I was younger and to the kinds of things I liked to read then.
The first concern, always, is to tell the best story possible. If the editor wants to change some of the vocabulary, or more often to explain it, then that comes later. I never really worry about it. When I was writing for the Wishbone series, the editors would frequently want to throw in a passage of explanation when they thought the vocabulary might be difficult. I would write, "Sam was wearing a poodle skirt and saddle oxfords as her fifties costume." The editors would change that to "Sam was wearing a poodle skirt, which was a gray flannel skirt with an applique of a poodle on it, and saddle oxfords, which were white shoes with a black leather instep, as her fifties costume." Lots of times I'd change it back or revise it to be somewhat less clunky.
JP: Are YA novels more difficult to write than adult novels?
BS: Yes and no. No because I don't really worry about its being a YA book while writing it, and yes because I have to be very careful about my research, about the clarity of the style, and so on. Kids are very sharp, and they'll eagerly point out any errors of research you might make. With adult readers, the main things you have to worry about are cars and guns. If you make a mistake about a car make or model, you'll hear from readers; if you make a mistake about the caliber of a weapon, you'll hear from armed readers.
JP: How did you get started writing the Star Trek, Nickelodeon, and Wishbone books?
Star Trek came first. About the second or third year of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the producers felt the ideas were getting stale, and they asked the members of the Science Fiction Writers of America (now the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, but still "SFWA") to pitch story ideas to the writing staff. My wife Barbara is a huge Trek fan, and on a long car trip, we crafted the outline for a Next Gen episode to be called "Happy Birthday, Data," all about Data's wanting a birthday and interviewing other crew members about their favorite birthdays. Each cast member got a little star turn in a flash-back scene about the character's birthday. We passed that on to Paramount, who liked the idea but not for a script, and they sent it to Pocket Books. The editors there then got in touch with us and said, "We love this as a book idea! Would you please write it for us? Except take out the birthday stuff and Data, and instead concentrate on...." It became a whole different story, but it got us the first of five Star Trek assignments.
Because of that, the people at Pocket Books asked us to write for the Nickelodeon series. And because the editor of the Wishbone Books at Lyrick Press had been a coeditor on the Trek books, I had the opportunity to launch all three of the Wishbone series: the Adventures of Wishbone, the Wishbone Mysteries, and the Wishbone: The Early Years books about Wishbone as a pup.
JP: How difficult is it to play in someone else's universe? Does it limit you creatively?
BS: It varies enormously. The Bellairs books are fun because each of them hangs from some odd little fact--the Voynich Manuscript, say--or some strange historical event--the attempt by Count Cagliostro to live forever. I have a great deal of freedom within these books, limited only by remaining as true as I can to the conception of the characters John created. The Star Trek books, of course, take place within a well-defined universe. Fortunately, my wife is a great fan of the series, and she knows it so well that Paramount had only two changes in all the five books: we had invented a computer component, and the next season of Deep Space Nine was going to introduce something called "isolinear chips," so they told us to change our term to theirs. And once they asked that a character not carry a phaser, since he rarely if ever did on the show.
Sometimes, though, the publishers and/or the creators ask for changes that are more fundamental or even nix plot ideas altogether because they don't see how they will fit into the world that has already been established by the series. The creator of Are You Afraid Of The Dark? didn't really mind us using one of his characters--but insisted on re-dressing him, because "He likes earth tones."
JP: You have collaborated on many books, both with your wife and Thomas E. Fuller. Is that an easier writing process? Is it more fun?
BS: I enjoy collaborating. Writing is lonely, and you never know if what you are doing is much good. Having another mind and set of eyes to go over everything is reassuring! Barbara and I usually collaborate by talking through the plot idea. I then do an outline; she revises it; we talk through the changes and get a final version; I write a first draft; she revises it; then we again go to a final version for submission. That takes more time than a solo effort, but it's more enjoyable.
When Tom and I collaborate, we actually spend a great deal of time, a larger percentage of our time, on the outline; then we create a very detailed outline (about one page of outline to ten pages of book) and divide the labor. He'll do chapters 1, 3, 5, and so on, while I am doing 2, 4, and 6. We exchange chapters by email, revise each other's chapters, and put them together into the manuscript; then we go through and do a detailed revision and polish, meeting in person and turning page by page through the book as we fine-tune everything. It goes faster than a solo effort, and by the time we finish, it's awfully hard to tell who wrote what.
To be more specific, the first decision we make is who the protagonist will be and what problem he/she has. We build the conflict from there, and the plot from the conflict. Then we proceed as above.
JP: You also write and perform radio plays. Does working in an auditory medium help you when you sit down to write a novel?
BS: I think so, but then I've always been one to read the dialogue aloud (especially the good lines) as I write it. When I was working on Piratehunter: Mutiny last year, the young protagonist (Irish by descent) surprised me at one point. I had just typed out a line I knew he was going to say, and then, as if he had taken over, he made the side comment, "I always tell the truth, when convenient." I stopped, read the line out loud in my best stage-Irish brogue, and laughed at what Davy had said--though the line, of course, came from my own subconscious. It does help to hear the characters in my head, and I think writing for radio or for the audio media is an aid to that. As T.S. Eliot wrote, "He does the police in different voices."
JP: You take great pains in your work to get every detail, the science, the historical facts, as exact as possible. Is this difficult?
BS: Can be. When Thomas Fuller and I were working on the second Pirate Hunter book, we needed some background on the Island of Tortuga. It is a very poor place today, not much of a tourist destination, and seeking on the Internet for material on it was a frustrating process. Tom and I began referring to it as The Island that Dare Not Speak its Name. In the end, we found enough contemporary information about it to piece together a reasonable picture of the life on the island in the 1680s, but that came mostly from print sources we got through interlibrary loan and other places. We also learned that we did not know as much as we thought we did. All the way through the first book we used the term "Caribbean," only to discover toward the end of writing that the area wasn't called that for another forty years or so after the period of our book. It was the North Sea (because it was north of the Spanish Main) to the English, but since there was, and is, another North Sea, we didn't want to use that. We finally decided to call the area in general the West Indies, and the ocean was just the ocean.
Sometimes you fudge little historical details. The Pirate Hunter series begins in June, 1687.The first book ends the following September. The second book begins the following January--which, to the people involved, was January, 1687. They were operating under the old Julian calendar, and the official New Year's Day was March 25 (though people did celebrate January 1 as New Year's, too). The calendar didn't change until March 25. But that's tedious to explain, and we didn't want footnotes, so we said the heck with it and followed modern usage, not contemporary usage, calling it January, 1688. We know better, in other words, but it seems a trivial point when compared to the plot, so we ignored it.
JP: What common factual mistakes do writers sometimes make, and what can they do to prevent them?
BS: My editors hate the moon. When a writer has the moon in a book, some unhappy wretch of a sub-copy editor will have the job of making sure the moon phases follow each other as they are supposed to do, so that one will not have a new moon in chapter one and a full moon two days later in chapter two. I use a calendar program and print out a calendar with moon phases to keep myself honest.
Generally, though, writers are prone to make mistakes about their own characters--Gwendolyn will have blonde hair and blue eyes in chapter one, and when she comes back in chapter seven, somehow she's acquired green eyes. The key here, I think, is just to write detailed descriptions and biographies and refer to them throughout the work. Just recently in a new Bellairs manuscript I forgot that the town librarian was Mrs. Geer and called her Mrs.Greer, but fortunately a copy editor caught that.
JP: What new projects are you working on?
BS: There's a new Bellairs series book, The Whistle, The Grave, And The Ghost, coming out next summer. I'm currently doing proofreading on that one. And Tom Fuller and I have written three books now in the Pirate Hunter series, coming out from Simon and Schuster beginning in October of this year: Mutiny, The Guns Of Tortuga, and Heart Of Steele. We'd like to do another three of these books, finishing with a bang in a volume to be called The World Turned Upside Down. I'm about to propose some new Bellairs entries, and Tom and I have some other plans in mind--an adult mystery novel, some science fiction, and some more fantasy. We'll see how it goes!
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